Beyond the Classroom: Finding Inspiration in Nature’s Paradise

By Heather Wilcox

When Heather Wilcox, Earthwatch’s Director of Annual Giving, arrived on the “Climate Change: Sea to Trees at Acadia National Park” expedition to work with high school students from California, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But two weeks in this idyllic park inspired these students to consider careers in science, and reminded Heather of the importance of protecting our natural world.

Only a few minutes after arriving in Maine’s Acadia National Park, I could already understand why it’s one of the top ten most visited national parks in the U.S. Acadia embodies the best of New England: tranquil spruce-fir forests, pink granite cliffs, polished cobble beaches, mountains, lakes, wetlands, and endless views of the richest blue water I’ve ever seen. That I was lucky enough to facilitate an Earthwatch expedition here for a group of teenage volunteers still felt like a dream. But there I was, anxiously awaiting the arrival of eight high school students from Los Angeles who were about to get their first exposure to field science, Earthwatch, Maine, traveling on their own away from home, and perhaps their future career paths.

Maine’s Acadia National Park

Maine’s Acadia National Park

But Acadia is so much more than an idyllic setting for tourists. The park is located along a major migratory corridor between Canada and South America. The abundance of berries and insects makes it a key pit-stop for birds that need to rest and refuel. Or at least it used to be… Changes in climate, happening at different times and in different ways along this route, have shifted the once synchronous arrival of fruit, insects, and birds, so they are now out of rhythm. Earthwatch Scientist Dr. Abe Miller-Rushing is studying what this means for the survival of these species that rely on each other for pollination and sustenance.

My team, however, would be focusing on these same sorts of shifts happening in the intertidal zone. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s large saltwater bodies, threatening the ecosystems and commercial fisheries that once thrived here. Scientists aren’t sure why this is happening (although they speculate that shifts in the Gulf Stream are at play) and there are still far more questions than answers when it comes to which species will be impacted and how.

John Cigliano demonstrates how to safely handle a crab.

John Cigliano demonstrates how to safely handle a crab.

We arrived at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park in Winter Harbor, Maine on July 5th, ready to conduct research that will help to answer some of these crucial questions. Each of the students was a Student Science Award recipient for Ignite Los Angeles, a fellowship program funded by the Durfee Foundation through a 25-year partnership with Earthwatch. This program is designed to immerse talented students in high-level science as it’s actually practiced, beyond anything they would have the opportunity to experience in the classroom.

Working under the direction of Earthwatch lead scientist Dr. John Cigliano, the students surveyed 14 research sites along the Schoodic Peninsula coast, carefully documenting the species of seaweeds, snails, barnacles and other marine creatures found there. The students also built and installed devices to measure wave energy, record hourly temperature data, and capture barnacle and mussel larvae as they settle out of the water column and attach to the rocks below. This data will paint a picture of the movement of intertidal species over time as they respond – or don’t respond – to warming temperatures, increasing acidification, and rising sea level.

Students record species found within a quadrat.

Students record species found within a quadrat.

Experts predict that within the next 100 years, there will be a massive increase in the amount of hydrogen in the water, which simultaneously decreases the amount of calcium carbonate (a substance that lobsters, clams, mussels, corals, and other marine species draw from the water to build protective shells or perform chemical or biological processes). As these species decline, all of the species that depend on them for food (including us humans) will also be affected. Other research suggests that fish and species without shells are being affected too, with lab results ranging from abnormal growth and development, to delayed reaction time and altered behavior.

It’s grim stuff, for sure, but there is still so much that we can do. This expedition alone is raising awareness about these issues, and will serve as a model for future studies.

It provides hope that ocean acidification and climate change will soon garner the attention that they need. And the fact that generous donors like the Durfee Foundation are committed to exposing youth to the sciences ensures that we are adding more bright minds to the fight.

I realized just how imperative these programs are during a conversation I had with the students about what they were being taught about climate change and the environment. Their unanimous response was a disheartening “nothing.” As a long-time Earthwatch employee, I am proud to say that our hands-on expeditions address gaps like these and truly do have a positive and lasting impact on those who participate.

Reviewing data from periwinkle snail behavioral experiments.

Reviewing data from periwinkle snail behavioral experiments.

When asked about her experience in Acadia, Iris, 16, said “Earthwatch lets us explore science in the field instead of in the classroom. It has had a great impact on us because we were able to see the effects of ocean acidification in our environment. Now that I see how close you can be to nature and how you can affect the world, it really inspires me for college. I definitely want to go to college for biology.”

Her teammate, Alina, 17, shared similar sentiments. “The only real exposure I’ve had to science was in school, in a classroom…I’ve learned that a career in environmental science or conservation would be a really viable career option for me, and Earthwatch really opened my eyes to that.”

As for me, I’ve returned home with a reinvigorated appreciation for the immense beauty of our natural world, and an elevated drive to do even more to protect it for future generations.

I’ve lived in New England my whole life and often took for granted the vast expanses of forest, the breathtaking rocky coasts, the peaceful serenity of being surrounded by wilderness, blinking fireflies on a hot summer evening, or the joy of gazing at the Milky Way splashed across an unpolluted night sky. Seeing these things again for the first time through the eyes of the students reminded me of just how magical our planet is, but also the seriousness of our personal responsibilities to take action to protect it as best we can, whenever we can.

Earthwatch’s Heather Wilcox holds up a new friend in Acadia National Park.

Earthwatch’s Heather Wilcox holds up a new friend in Acadia National Park.

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